Most of us are winding down from a 4th of July extended week end. About 150 million hot dogs were consumed on the 4th, including the 69 dogs chomped down by Joey “the Jaws” Chestnut, who won his 7th straight world-record at Nathan’s Hot dog eating contest at Coney Island. 700 million pounds of chicken found its way on the grill, along with 190 million pounds of ground beef and sausages. 25 million pounds of fireworks lit our skies and we waved about 5 million dollars’ worth of American flags – all made in China. Add to those figures platters of hummus and baba ghanouj with pancit and rice. Not to mention other gatherings with whole pig, whole lamb, lamb shanks, roasted pork belly, carne asada, gallo pinto, chicken biryani and gallons of Chinese sweet soup dessert or sweet green-bean soup or almond tofu -- look out America – we are fast becoming a minority majority nation: just like our New York City Presbytery, where no racial-ethnic group holds the majority. Immigrants have claimed Independence Day as their own, and holding the country to it. There are at least 143 origin countries and 325 languages in this great land of ours.
In this mix is a rising number of people, young people, and boomers alike, immigrants and old-timers -- who do not relate to old-time religion. They consider themselves “spiritual” not religious. They are suspicious of authority and social institutions, including church. They see no reason to join. They are skeptical by nature. They represent at least 20 percent of our population. How do we respond to the amazing, shifting dynamics of our culture, of our faith? Do we lament and despair? Or do we celebrate and change? Do we proclaim a new Independence Day – where the essentials of faith are not about tyranny and exclusion, but instead bring freedom and inclusion to the whole people of God?
We hear how Jesus sends 70 disciples to go before him, to prepare the way…to go into new villages, meet new people. 70 is a potent number in the Jewish tradition, referring to universality and leadership. 70 individuals formed the table nations that came together to create the tower of Babel. 70 individuals formed the people of Israel that first went to Egypt. Moses selected 70 elders to help him lead. The leadership body of the Jewish nation was comprised of 70 elders. Jesus chooses 70 disciples to engage foreigners and strangers - the beginnings of Jesus’ vision for his church. This is a harvest of souls, a harvest that God has tenderly, patiently loved and grown. Now it’s time to bring them to the table for the heavenly feast.
Jesus tells his 70 how to harvest. Disciples of Jesus need to be on the go – not resting on their laurels at home. We are called to meet and greet new people. We are called to go outside our comfort zone – meeting people different from ourselves. Jesus is clear: don’t take purse, bag, sandals –greet no one on the road. Jesus isn’t encouraging anti-social behavior – but he wants us to be unhindered by worldly objects. Jesus wants us humble. And depend on God. We shouldn’t even wear sandals – since the poor of the door didn’t have them -- and that would set us apart, separate us. We’re not to engage in lengthy salutations and conversations as were custom. Jesus wanted his disciples to be focused, eager to get to their destination. Once in the village they were to offer peace. To eat as they eat. Live where they live. We are to work to cure the ills around them. Then, we are to speak – the kingdom of God is at hand. Jesus is near. to eat as they eat. Live where they live. We are to work to cure the ills around them. Then, we are to speak – the kingdom of God is at hand. Jesus is near.
Jesus has a new challenge for us. He’s sending us out – out of the building, to go meet the immigrants, the skeptics, the seekers, and minister to them. Eat with them. Spend time with them. Alleviate their ills. And tell them, God loves them. The God that Jesus reveals is a God who believes in justice and mercy, and love for our neighbor, where there’s a place at the table for all. It is a message of grace. It invites belonging and connection. And all are invited.
Interesting. Our churches are empty but Jesus insists that the Harvests are full. We need more laborers. How does this make us feel? It is overwhelming? Or is it exciting? Pastor Rebecca Messman asks: Do you know the technical term for the eye condition that develops as we age? The one that means you lose the ability to see things that are close? It’s called presbyopia. It means “old eyes.”
We, as a church, she says, have developed old eyes, presbyopia.
We see the distant past…when the pews were filled, the church ran dozens of programs and when church attendance on Sunday was a priority in people’s lives, not an option. We see the distant future, cobwebs in the organ and faded framed pictures from the glory days past. But we can’t see what’s around us. Our neighbors with many different beliefs and customs.
Messman says is either better eyes or longer arms. Jesus models both. He focuses on what is near and he reaches out in ways that are uncustomary. He focused on the people near to him. And he wasn’t afraid to break the rules when necessary.
The unchurched appreciate what they know of Jesus and his teachings; they just don’t know that much about him. They claim to pray daily. They yearn for community. They value the spiritual life and connect with God in nature, music and art. To cure our presbyopia – we need to see them. Then we need to reach out in courageous and creative ways. One thing that can give us better eyes and longer arms. Change the way we see ourselves. Not as a dying church, but a church that reaches out. It is contagious. Folks want to reach out more.
We celebrated secular freedom this past week. Now let us embrace spiritual freedom. Train our eyes to see the need around us, right here, in Bay Ridge – and with our arms reach out to embrace the people God has placed in our midst. God is not retiring us. God is sending us out to see the world through God’s perfect vision. Instead of scarcity we see abundance. Instead of feeling like we have nothing to offer – we discover how much we have to share. You and I are the laborers God is sending forth in this brave new work. Bringing peace. Curing ills. Living and eating as one people. We can do this – it is our calling as leaders in the movement Jesus began. To work for freedom, universality. To make friends out of strangers. Believers. The kingdom of God is near – and the Harvest is plentiful and the laborers are here, waiting to be sent. Amen.